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ThinkLA: 10 years of coming together for the greater good of Los Angeles

ThinkLA: 10 years of coming together for the greater good of Los Angeles / ThinkLA

It’s not easy to get organizations in the advertising world to work together. That’s especially true in large markets, where competitive natures and egos claw their way to winning business and collaborative efforts are often an afterthought. Only so much can get done in silos, however, which is why one group on the left coast is managing to have success.

ThinkLA has worked hard to be the voice of the industry and unite separate advertising entities to form a cohesive brand – one that embodies Los Angeles – under one banner.

Agencies and companies in the industry have their own agendas, winning business being job number one, but ThinkLA gets them to look at things differently and come together for good with great programs, thought-provoking speakers and successful charitable events. It also gets companies to think of LA as a cohesive market – thus ThinkLA.

ThinkLA wasn’t always a one-stop-shop. It started as three separate entities – the Ad Club of LA, the Magazine Reps Association and the Los Angeles Advertising Agencies Association. The three crossed paths occasionally, but never really collaborated in a meaningful way. But just over a decade ago, a group of people got together to merge the three and make up an organization that would work for everyone involved. As the organization enters its 10th year, perhaps stronger than ever, those involved look back at ThinkLA’s somewhat rocky beginnings and how it has grown to bring everyone together.

A joining for a greater good

Jerry McGee was instrumental in bringing the clubs together. Now the executive VP of the 4As, McGee was on the board of ThinkLA for years and shaped the agency. He had been a creative director at Ogilvy in New York when he was asked to come out west in 1984. He quickly became a member of the WS3A, the Western States Advertising Agency Association, which was a band of CEOs from print media and broadcast media who all had a great sense of community, according to McGee.

“For a long time the WS3A was very strong, and it went on for a number of years. Then the individual organizations started getting stronger than the whole – the Southern California Broadcasters, the Print Media Association, and all those different groups started having their own needs and their own events. The WS3A broke up and the Ad Club of Los Angeles was the next thing that followed, and that consisted primarily of reps and agencies, but the agencies were really the members. The print media were members too, but they, again, had their own stuff,” said McGee.

Then a digital group was formed, comprised primarily of the early players in the tech space. There were also a cluster of different coalitions doing their own things, and the cohesive nature that buoyed the WS3A pulled apart and ultimately the industry fractured.

“Brian Morris and I, who were the heads of the Ad Club, took a year to see if we could broker a deal to pull everybody together in a federation, which was going to be called ThinkLA,” he added.

McGee was asked to lead ThinkLA, but was busy with the 4As at that point, so he found quality people to fill the board.

“I recruited Eric Johnson, and he and I were co-presidents for a long time,” he said, adding that he essentially became emeritus a year later and helped get Kristi VandenBosch and Tim Hand elected as the new heads of ThinkLA.

“Jerry is the keeper of the industry. His role makes him really plugged into us as a thought-leading industry, but he cares so much about what happens and how well the west coast represents itself and is represented — so that a lot of things come out of this market,” added VandenBosch, the chief digital officer at MXM.

Many had a hand in making ThinkLA a success, but it falls to Susan Franceschini to keep things rolling. As the executive director of ThinkLA, she helps oversee the industry from a unique perspective, keeping together all the separate entities so they don’t unravel again. She came to the job after being laid off as a corporate recruiter at a large agency in LA.

“About a month later I got a call from the woman that was running the Ad Club of Los Angeles at the time. She said, ‘I need somebody to help my executive director. You've already had tons of experience with us. What do you think about coming on board to help run the Ad Club?’ It made sense. There was a lot of overlap. I had a network of people already. That was 14 years ago. I came on board to run the Ad Club and then a couple months in, Cheryl Golden, who was running the Ad Club, the Magazine Reps Association, and the Los Angeles Advertising Agencies Association, decided she was ready to retire. I took over running those three organizations,” said Franceschini.

She and the rest of the crew saw that the events the individual organizations were producing were overlapping, and everyone was essentially co-producing and co-promoting, so they continued the conversation about merging. It took a year of meetings to get to the point to actually create what is now ThinkLA. They asked why they should do it, what it would look like, how it could survive creatively and financially — and how it would help the member businesses.

“We came out on the other side of it a much better and stronger organization because, to that end, people want an organization to be the connective tissue. They want us to be the hub of connectivity in bringing all of the organizations together. We did that. We had a cross-section of people attending our events. We were looking at it through a different lens,” she said.

Tim Hand, VP, OEM sales, Kelley Blue Book, and co-president of ThinkLA, has been through a lot with the organization, having been with it from the beginning.

“Ten years ago, it was really tough. We were still having the challenges from the dot com crash, 9/11 and everything else. I always remind people, if you go back ten to fifteen years ago, the Ad Club was losing money, Mag Reps was losing money, WS3As was becoming, maybe, arguably less relevant and it was a very tough market out here,” said Hand.

“I think the people involved in creating Think LA recognized that all these different organizations were not doing their jobs well. I think we really came together and created an organization that, in the first couple of years, wasn’t necessarily totally successful but now, it's an organization that is self-sustaining, making money and able to donate to good causes,” Hand continued.

While ThinkLA had a bit of a rocky start, the whole ended up being much more than its separate parts and remains that today, thanks to collaborative efforts by the board and its member agencies.

It’s all in the name

David Angelo, founder, chairman, David&Goliath, serves as a guest speaker for ThinkLA and served on various boards of directors before ThinkLA was formed. The goal when uniting the separate entities was to come up with a name that would tie the groups together.

“I took a strategic approach to this. I said, ‘alright, so what are we really trying to do?’ We wanted not to just be an ad club, per se, but more of a mindset for creativity in Los Angeles,” he said. “We wanted to be able to not just recruit great creative people or great marketing people, but also great clients, because clients were now starting to look at LA as a market for great advertising thinking. ThinkLA became this call to action for everyone. If you're looking for the next great wave of creativity, ThinkLA. If you're looking for the next great creative agency to work for, ThinkLA. It works on so many different levels.”

Growth beyond the rubber chicken dinner

With a name and philosophy that worked for everyone involved, the next step was to ask how an ad club steps beyond the usual awards shows and rubber chicken dinners to truly connect with a community. ThinkLA, through lots of conversations and forward thinking, has done that.

Eric Johnson is a board member, the chairman to the office of president, and also the president at Ignited. He sees success through the quality of events the group puts on.

“We trimmed back a number of social events we've done over the years, because it's fun to do a few social events, but you can't just be a party club. Some of the ad clubs around here are just an excuse to get together and drink. That is not a sustainable model,” said Johnson.

He went on to explain that ThinkLA has shifted to be more useful to its members.

“Companies aren't going to go and be writing checks to sponsor events, or send people to programs if they think it's just a cocktail social function. We've got a pretty good base and reputation. We're able to go and curate good speakers, bring in big clients that can share their thoughts about what's going on in their business. I think that's allowed us to continue to sell out most of our events and have good attendance,” said Johnson.

ThinkLA’s events tend to fill up quickly, with an enthusiastic crowd and community that is decidedly cohesive and in love with LA.Indeed, this past year, 900 people filled an event around programmatic advertising and the annual AdJam, a long-standing battle of the LA ad bands, brought in around 1,500.

“I think it's because we don't think of ourselves as an ad club. What we have is a responsibility to use the tools that we have, as marketing, media, communications and technology people, to solve real problems, not just in our industry, but in our community,” added VandenBosch.

“As the new leadership have come in and seen the power of what this group does, it's much bigger than our industry, and that, I think, is our real point of pride. We use our resources, talent money to do really good things for our business, whether it's making our industry more diverse, actually solving real problems in our community that have to do with anything from poverty to the lack of opportunity within the industry. We can solve a ton of problems with the talent that we have as an organization. I think we just saw a bigger mission, and that's why this group gets along so well because we're not about competing advertising agencies forced to coexist in the same little pool,” she said.

Building a lasting sense of community

Considering those interviewed for this story have all recounted that the LA ad business has been an ego-driven, cutthroat industry, it’s surprising to hear how well they get along under the ThinkLA umbrella. Finding that sense of community has kept the organization strong and cohesive, and that’s something Johnson and the others want to keep growing.

A recent event was a true success, and it’s one that is built on the foundations of the Ad Club. A fundraiser for Toys for Tots brought the community together at ThinkLA’s annual holiday party. Members handed over nearly 1,000 toys to US Marine Corps members for the toy drive. It’s something that the organization has been doing since 1947, and it’s that type of good cause that can get people out of their siloed ways, working with each other to make amazing things happen.

ThinkLA wants to be able to reach people beyond events, however, to serve the community in a way that can be done virtually, so it’s not dependent on people leaving their desks and driving long distances, a very LA thing. The organization endeavors to connect people even better via their website and digital — and a redesign to help educate, entertain, inform, help people find jobs and new hires, and be a key resource is in the works.

Reaching out to younger LA

Professional and personal development of younger talent is essential to keeping ThinkLA moving forward.

“There are agencies that can't send people off to classes because it's expensive or time consuming, so we tried to create a series of classes that help people. Whether it's presentation skills or Media 101, we're helping to train those people. We also recently did something on mindfulness — an important topic,” said Franceschini.

She also said that another piece came from conversations with membership regarding the need for talent, especially as a new generation hits the marketplace.

“People coming out of school had different skills, so we realized we needed to help create the next generation of marketers. We got a task force together, met with several universities – USC, Pepperdine, UCLA, Loyola Marymount (LMU) here – and talked to them about starting a new school of marketing. We ended up partnering with LMU and we have something called the M School, which is to help create that next generation. It's a public and private partnership and the cool part of that is that 100% of the first class to graduate is working in the industry. That was the goal – to create this population of valuable talent and help them find the work. We've done that through internships and through that connection,” she said, adding that ThinkLA just started its mentor program, with young professionals and the board of directors.

“It's a small pilot class to test how much structure a mentor program needs and how much it doesn't need,” she said.

“That's one of the big things that I've been trying to focus on this year — to be able to create a way for young people to get into the industry and have a mentor-type relationship. We're working on putting together for Southern California, long-term, the opportunity for younger people to sign up to want to be a mentee and also have more experiences people to be able to sign up as mentors and be able to really help people as they grow through their careers,” added Hand.

Moving forward

Membership has grown for ThinkLA over the years, bucking trends of ad clubs in other areas. Much of it is due to the forward-thinking leadership of Franceschini, VandenBosch, Hand, Johnson and the others.

Membership has grown to include entertainment, gaming and tech companies. Currently, the organization has roughly 600 individual members, but it also has 115 corporate members that represent nearly 7,500 people in Los Angeles and Southern California.

“We have tried to stay nimble and listen to the members and not just do the same events every year,” said Franceschini.

She went on to say that there is nothing precious in their approach to growth. They are always looking to add programs and events of value, so if the regularly scheduled boring luncheon that only drew a handful of people needs to go, it goes.

“Time and money are short for everybody. What is it you want to spend your time and money on to advance your business and get up out of your chair and drive in LA, across town? What matters? We tried to really focus on programming to that and making sure that we were adding value to the members and not doing what's already out there,” she added. “We've tried to make sure that the board is also reflective of our membership. I think that's important too, as new types of companies came in, to make sure that we have someone at the table to have a voice from whatever department or whatever section of the industry that might be new.”

VandenBosch added that they can solve a ton of problems with the talent ThinkLA has in its organization. They see a bigger mission and they all get along because “we're not about competing advertising agencies forced to coexist in the same little pool. It's about us collectively being able to do something really big,” she said.

“Every now and again Susan will bring together the CEOs of the agencies and she's done it around issues like mindfulness. A lot of the agency leaders are very active meditators and are really interested in this whole mindful thing. That's when you see a really interesting dynamic emerge because those would be natural predators, like when you put that many alpha dogs in a room you'd expect something really awful to happen, and they are amazing together. Maybe it was the topic, but they were absolutely the most interested and supportive and collegial group that you could ever conceive of,” she said.

ThinkLA harnesses people who have unique talents and uses them for a greater good. It unites them to reinforce the power and leadership. They are strengthened when they talk to each other and the community about the positive direction they are moving in. They are working to make LA a major creative and advertising hub, uniting for a greater purpose and a greater good, and they’re using the tremendous talents they have to help elevate the organization and the whole of southern California.

“You unleash this market against some major societal change and you have got some great, crazy stuff. This isn't like an ad club where someone's trying to make the one big ad about methamphetamine addiction to win an award at Cannes,” said VandenBosch. “This is about how do we change a city, how do we change a community, how do we change the world? It sounds like it's too lofty, but it's almost that big of a purpose.”

Additional reporting by Doug Zanger